Friday, July 15, 2005

Talk about Chutzpah!

Remember Jeff Groscost? Groscost was the former Mesa Mormon state legislator responsible for the Alternative Fuels scam that cost the state of Arizona $140 million. He's baaaaaaaaaack! Not as a legislator, but as the new president of a Mesa company that sells alternative-fuels vehicle conversion kits. Have these folks no shame? Sheesh!

The alternative-fuel vehicle program was a disaster for Groscost's once promising political career. It also threatened at one point to drain state coffers by $800 million before lawmakers trimmed the costs to about $140 million by shutting out buyers.

"They actually sent this out in a press release?" asked Rep. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix, of the announcement. "You usually do that when you want to get positive press. Are they new in town?"

Brotherton, one of the few lawmakers who voted against the alternative-fuels program, said Groscost is still politically radioactive.

Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, marveled at Groscost's ability to land on his feet after the drawn out "alternative-fuel fiasco."

"There's no end to Jeff Groscost's ability to sell himself and his quote, unquote unique skills he brings to the table," Allen said. "He's an amazing opportunist. But as I recall, we paid out a lot of money as taxpayers because of that scheme, and it was a scheme."

But Sen. Karen Johnson, who served with Groscost in the same Mesa district, believes he was a visionary when it comes to alternative-fuel technology, even though she didn't support his initial alternative-fuels legislation.

"He was a man before his time, and I applaud anybody who is working to make us less dependent on foreign oil," said Johnson, R-Mesa.

Groscost, a Mesa Republican, was a state representative from 1993 until 2001 and speaker of the House from 1997 to 2001, when he ran unsuccessfully for Senate. By then, he was immersed in the alternative-fuels scandal and he lost to Democrat Jay Blanchard of Gilbert in a heavily conservative district.

In 2000, he ushered a Senate bill through the Legislature that offered generous financial incentives for people to buy vehicles capable of using alternative fuels, to help clean the air. Then Gov. Jane Hull signed it into law.But it was so generous that motorists scrambled to dealers to buy cars and in some cases, got half the price back in tax credits. What was expected to cost the state about $10 million in tax credits ended up costing about $140 million, even after the Legislature stopped the program.

Since then, Groscost has been working as a consultant on various political and business campaigns. He has worked on behalf of Wal-Mart and shopping center developer Vestar Development Co., as well as campaigns for state Treasurer David Petersen and U.S. Sen. John McCain.

For those unfamiliar with the alt fuels scam, here's a quick history lesson:

In the single most irresponsible government giveaway in state history, Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost forced an 80-page bill past lawmakers in the closing moments of the 2000 session. The bill, dubbed alt-fuels, was advertised as an environment-friendly law that would get cleaner cars on the road. In reality, it was a massive subsidy that allowed Arizonans to get the state to pick up the tab for their cars, as long as they converted them to run on alternative fuels--even if they never actually used the option.

The final tab on alt-fuels ran about $140 million--and it also cost Groscost a state Senate seat when he was beaten by an unknown Arizona State University professor, Jay Blanchard, who had gotten into the race on a lark. As a result, in the 2001-'02 sessions, the state Senate ended up with a 15-15 split between the parties, with Democrats wielding more clout than they'd had in years.

Groscost's hasn't let a tiny $140 million mistake keep him out of politics; he's been spotted all over the Capitol this year, including in huddles in Speaker Jake Flake's office.

The fiasco would easily qualify as one of the worst chapters in Arizona's political history if only there weren't so many other contenders for that dubious honor. Former Gov. Evan Mecham was impeached in the late 1980s over improper campaign loans. In the early 1990s, in a scandal dubbed Azscam, several state lawmakers were videotaped taking bribes from an undercover informant posing as a gambling lobbyist.

Ah, those were the days my friend! We thought they'd never end. Thankfully they did. Those years were a bonanza for political cartoonists in Arizona like Steve Benson.